I’m the kind of person who plays by the rules.
As an economist studying public policy, I weigh data even-handedly and make research conclusions based on evidence, not ideology. Sometimes my work has resulted in conclusions that appear to support liberal positions, and other times conservative ones. But I have never buried results because they were inconvenient, since the rule for researchers is that we establish facts.
As a citizen, I’ve never even received a speeding ticket. And yet on Friday, I was arrested for breaking the rules of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Why? Because I believe the rule of law is by far the most important rule, and the General Assembly was undermining it.
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After calling the meeting to address disaster relief, Republican lawmakers rapidly passed legislation concentrating their party’s control over courts, elections and appointments before newly-elected leaders from the other party take office next month. Such action — changing the rules mid-game because they didn’t like the outcome of the election — undermines the rule of law by making it a tool for those in power rather than a guarantor of a level playing field. It is the type of action warned about by researchers such as Brown University’s Jeff Colgan and Harvard University’s Steve Levitsky, who study threats to democracy.
My preferred approach to critiquing such actions is through writing, calling and testifying during a legislative comment period, just as I teach my students are their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
But I was given no such opportunity to exercise my rights and responsibilities, due to the surprise special session, rushed calendar and lack of a published agenda. So I went to the General Assembly to observe, also my right and duty as a citizen. But the galleries were cleared of all citizens and reporters on account of offenses such as individuals making “disruptive hand gestures” (actually, making the American Sign Language motion that represents applause).
Then, I, along with other parents, teachers, veterans, ministers, grandmothers and a wide rainbow of North Carolinians, sang and chanted messages such as, “All political power comes from the people” in the rotunda of the General Assembly building. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we were allowed to do so under the legislature rules. But on Friday, without explanation, the rules were changed, and we were arrested for those same chants.
I had never been arrested, but that day I felt like I had no choice. In recent months I have seen terrifying threats to democracy, including the increasingly authoritarian rule in Poland, the jailing of journalists in Turkey and foreign interference in U.S. elections. On Friday, as part of an apparently swelling tide of anti-democratic actions, I was being silenced by my own government, and civil disobedience was the only way I could be heard. Not breaking the rules wasn’t an option.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that breaking the rules was not a normal thing for me to do. But these are not normal times. We scholars evenhandedly weigh evidence — but as citizens we should never be “evenhanded” about democracy. We are supposed to protect democracy, within the system if we can but through nonviolent dissent if we must. This is the rule we learn from our history; it is the rule I have always taught my students; it is the rule that, as a scholar second but a citizen first, I will always follow.
Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat is an associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. She is also a faculty fellow of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.